The organised chaos

On being “poor”

I was in the queue at the school canteen, waiting to buy my lunch at the chup chye peng stall. The line was long and I was whiling away the time by mucking around on my phone, as most of us do, hardly noticing who was ahead of me in the queue. When I finally neared the stall, I put the phone away to check out the offerings in front of me.

That’s when I noticed her.

She was dressed in the cleaners’ uniform – a red polo tee – and probably in her 60s. Like me, she was perusing her lunch options. And then she decided. On top of the mountain of rice went the sambal kang kong.

“Any more?” asked the stall assistant.

The cleaner jabbed at the tray of fried eggs and one landed on the plate with a plop.

“Some more?”

The aunty shook her head and moved on to the counter to pay for her lunch.

**********

That incident has stayed on my mind for a while now. I have been musing about it, and wanting to pen it down but so far the words have eluded me. (Also, most nights see me snoozing while putting Aidan to bed – hardly conducive for rational thinking and reflective writing.)

And I realised that the reason why this has resonated with me is because of the fact that most of us take money for granted.

There I was, merrily ordering up a storm, thinking that lunch is pretty cheap on campus anyway. Plus, I was starving and had a long day of teaching with virtually no breaks ahead of me. I deserve a hearty lunch.

But so did the aunty. She also works hard for her money and yet she ended up with a plate of rice, vegetables and egg. Maybe she wasn’t hungry. Maybe she had a full breakfast. Maybe, just maybe, she ordered a meagre plate for food not because she did not want to spend the money.

When I was a kid, I was not rich. My father died when I was six, my mother worked long hours to earn just enough money for us to get by. Back then, buying a soft drink was considered a treat. My pricey secondary school education was mostly paid for by the school’s bursary, one reason why I am ever so grateful to my alma mater. I started earning my keep when I was 16. I paid off my education through loans.

I was not rich. And yet my mother refused to let us call ourselves poor. She said there were others who were truly poor, who had no roof over their heads and little to eat. We had enough, she said, and we were not poor.

And that mantra sort of stuck with me. My husband and I are not rich. We live in our HDB flat, a bargain purchase compared to the market prices of today. We spent so much money on our fertility treatments. We don’t go for fancy meals nor buy luxury goods. Our kids wear hand-me-downs and many of their things are gifts (they are indeed very loved). Our holidays are usually low-key, low-budget and it’s not like we go on many of those anyway. Some months, like when Zac was hospitalised and the bill was in the range of thousands of dollars and we paid for it in cash, we feel the stress of being in the sandwiched middle class. I get panicky some days, wondering how on earth we are ever going to retire in future, when the cost of tertiary education is going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I wonder why I got into journalism because it sure as hell doesn’t pay well and inflation clearly outpaced my pay rise.

But this post is not about how “poor” we are. Because I still subscribe to the notion that we are lucky and bloody privileged. I can at least afford to order meat and tofu and vegetables to go with my rice. Some people can’t.

So it gets on my nerves when I hear people bandy the terms “poor” and “broke” around. No, you are not poor. You, with your cars and your big house and your pretty paraphernalia and your expensive gizmos and your frequent holidays and your gourmet meals. You are not poor. Stop this self-pitying and get real.

Just think of the aunty with an egg and a little pile of sambal kang kong on her plate of rice, whenever you complain about not having enough money.